up ADU Farewell

Shai Simonson
Professor and Director of ArsDigita University
8 July 2001

ADU promised to provide the highest quality CS education, free of charge, to willing, motivated and bright students. All you needed was a Bachelor.s degree and a good story. Twelve courses; 82 Problem Sets; 21 Examinations; Eight Projects and many twelve-hour day, six day-weeks later, you are done. We had over 350 applications for the 35 slots eventually filled by you. You promised us ten and a half months; we promised you a nervous breakdown. (I mean an education).

How does something as cool as this happen? Starting a new university is the kind of thing you talk about at a party, and then move on to the next topic of conversation with a shrug and a "yeah, that would be a cool idea" -- unless you are Philip Greenspun -- then you gather resources, show some vision and courage and make it happen. Maimonides, a middle age Jewish philosopher, discussing a hierarchy of charity, writes that the highest form of charity is providing your fellow man with tools, allowing him to help himself. That is the kind of philanthropy that ADU represented.

Our success this year is due to the combination of Philip.s vision, the generosity of ArsDigita, your willingness to work, and the tireless efforts and myriad talents of all the teachers, staff and volunteers. The part time teachers and assistants this year: Tara, Holly, John, Rif, Gil, Ben, Dave, Alan, Mark, Luis, Philip, Dan, Sam, Zvi, Patrick, Ravi, Rajeev, and Tina all earned your respect. Barbara, Sandy, Sara, Alex, Justin, and Chris all worked hard to make day-to-day life at ADU possible. Sofia and Svetlana helped and assisted generously. Last and most important, my fulltime staff: Guneet, Dimitri, Rusty, and Mike -- you guys were super. The success of this year depended directly on you, and you have earned my everlasting gratitude and respect.

Throughout this year, I often wondered what all of you talented people had in common? Lawyers, Writers, Speakers, Composers, Poets, Dancers, Stage managers, Engineers, Technicians, Physicians, Musicians, Statisticians, Psychologists, Anthropologists, Social Workers, and Spies. Some of you can throw a Frisbee half a football field, and some of you prefer to watch. You commute by bicycle, train, automobile and foot. Your study habits differ -- some work all day, and others work all night. Some take careful notes and some just listen. Some are masters of discipline and organization, and some wait for spurts of inspiration. Some of you rarely ask for help, and some always do.

Your eating habits differ starting with the spices you put on your popcorn. There are those of you bring the same sandwich from home every day, those who prefer the food trucks, and those who would sooner eat their cat than the food from the trucks. Some prefer tofu and salad, others pepperoni pizza, and still others double sausages.

Your preferences in programming languages and operating systems imply underlying philosophies that diverge. Some of you happily use Windows and others use Linux boxes where every single application is open source. Some of you even feel compelled to compile the operating system and all the applications yourself.

Your hobbies range widely including marathon running, football, theatre, music, ultimate Frisbee, virtual reality games, sailing, cycling, hiking, singing, dancing, and drinking. Some of you are married with children, some married without children, and some single. You don.t all have the same resources or wealth.

You don.t all have the same natural abilities. Some of you are natural programmers. Some of you are natural mathematicians. Some of you are natural hackers. Some of you are natural problem solvers. Some of you are natural writers. Some of you are natural speakers.

And boy do your personalities vary! Some of you like confrontations, others avoid them. Some of you are unflappable and some emotionally fragile. Some of you have thick skins and others are more sensitive. Some of you are very proud. Some of you are extroverts and some introverts.

You are all bright and motivated, but at certain times some of you are brighter and more motivated. Depending on the topic or task, some of you struggle and some of you breeze.

I thought for a while that there was no single thing that you all had in common. But one thing you do all have in common is courage.

Everyone goes to college nowadays. Think of what it looks like to a typical eighteen-year old in the year 2001. Study whatever you like with the guidance of world-class experts. Learn to write, think and question critically and intelligently. Learn a skill or a trade. Control your own schedule and have no boss. Live with single people your own age, and have parties at least weekly. Food and health insurance are taken care of.. Pay later and get low interest loans up front. When done, make a lot more money than you would otherwise be able to make. Interested? The alternative is going to work 9-5 making minimum wage. It doesn.t take courage to go to college.

Then there is ADU. Give up your paying job. Interrupt your career. Jeopardize your relationship with your spouse or significant other. Move far from home to a place where apartment prices are at least double. No health insurance or loans are available. Work twelve-hour days studying the fundamentals of computer science, at an intense pace. Compress four years of material into one. And pray that the company behind the scenes is willing and able to honor its commitments.

You all had courage to come to ADU. You all put important parts of your life at risk. You all had the willingness to sacrifice with no guarantees.

What now?

Some of you will become software engineers; some of you will go back to your old career with new skills and knowledge to offer; some of you will continue on to graduate school in computer science; and some will decide that computer science is not your thing and switch directions toward professional school or other careers. You should all be very proud of your efforts and accomplishments. You are ready to follow any road you choose.

But I suggest that it is not what you do now, nor to what extent your life has changed due to ADU that matters most. What really matters is your courage and your willingness to follow your dream. This is the trait that allowed you to choose risk over safety, challenges over comfort, and intellectual pursuit over the accumulation of personal wealth. Life should be a never-ending quest for personal fulfillment and the acquisition of new interests. Never be complacent; always guard your courage.

Was the ADU experiment in education a success?

On a simple level, the answer is yes. Students learned and performed. Many have found jobs, or been admitted to graduate schools. Very few dropped out and the plan of study was completed pretty much as it was first envisioned.

On a deeper level, the answer is maybe. Let.s see what happens to everyone in five years. Five years from now, are your jobs or careers satisfying? Five years from now, has anyone finished a Ph.D in computer science? Five years from now, will you say it was all worth it?

Being practically minded, I have devised an algorithm to see whether this year was a success or not. I have gone around to each of the cars that brought students to graduation today, and locked the steering wheel to the door handle using this device. (Hold up the seven rings puzzle). Every 15 minutes, I check and see whether any cars remain in the parking lot. If it is after 6 PM, and all the cars are gone, then answer yes, else answer no.

When people finish a long-term special project in their lives, it sometimes leaves them in shock as they try to return to their normal lives. Hikers who commit six months to hiking the Appalachian Trail, report a discomfort around their old friends and family. They yearn to talk about the experience but find that no one understands them. They find some solace in yearly meetings with other thru-hikers. But the experience for the most part lives inside them. I encourage you to nurture the friendships you have made this year, not only for their own sake but for the purpose of sharing memories.

"From all my teachers, I grow wise," says the Talmud. I like this line because the grammatical form of the word used for teachers, is so close to the root for student. "From all my students, I grow wise," is the flip side. With each conversation this year, I always learned some new idea or a new way to look at an old idea. I learned:

How to configure a local network, crimp an RJ-45 connector, install Debian Linux from a floppy, and use emacs instead of vi.
How to download music for free, tie a Matthew Walker knot, and float my credit card debt.
How the polymerase chain reaction process used in DNA computing really works.
Why ice packs or hot packs both cure muscle cramps.
That Alan Turing did not have a German accent.
That Frisbee Tennis can be as much fun as Frisbee Golf.
That Quake is not just an earth shaking phenomenon or a 1970.s breakfast cereal.
That there are at least 35 different ways to understand my instructions.

Thanks for teaching me; thanks for fetching me lunch every day; and thanks for your trust. Keep in touch. I will miss you all very much.